The Federal Reserve, a rich man’s hunting club, top-secret meetings, a 19th-century female novelist, and a 15th-century fox hunt in the chevy chase trivia roundup…
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1. Chevy Chase (the place) is a Maryland town, developed from uninhabited farmland purchased by Nevada senator Francis Newlands in the 1890s (also, not that it’s relevant for the story, but Newlands was a truly incandescent white supremacist). The name comes from The Ballad of Chevy Chase, which dates to the 15th century and, confusingly, is the name of two distinct ballads both of which describe the same event. An event of such magnitude as to produce an internationally recognized song that’s remained in public consciousness for six centuries.
That event? A fox hunt (or chase, in vernacular). The “chevy” part refers either to the Cheviot Hills, where the hunt took place, or is a diminutive form of the French chevaucee, meaning “border raid.” According to legend, the Earl of Northumberland went on a fox hunt, chasing the wily beast known only as La Renard, hunted with only its cunning to protect it.
The hunting party chased the elusive canid onto lands owned by the Earl of Douglas. Bursting with umbrage at such an obscene lack of decorum, Douglas led a brutal counterattack which left only 110 people alive. Out of how many? I have no idea, but that’s where the name comes from, in any case. Read the ballad here.
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2. The ballad appears in various bits of art and pop culture, including North and South, an 1855 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell. It’s true that all books are influenced by and product of their time: The Great Gatsby is a definitive tale of the Jazz Age; The Grapes of Wrath a meditation on the dust bowl; The Hunger Games an only barely fictionalized parody of 21st-century voyeuristic and bloodthirsty reality TV dystopia. North and South was a reflection of the changing economics and culture of England, a time when the rural south of rent-seeking landed gentry and peasant workers was diverging from the industrial and urban north, riding the industrial revolution with tycoons and impoverished mill workers in its wake. The north was modern. The south was old.
Gaskell lived in Manchester, a northern “millocracy” that was particularly grim for workers, even by the standards of 19th-century mill towns. In the book, a young southern woman ends up in a mill town, and the plot centers on her observations of the Hobbesian brutality of workers’ lives and a love-hate relationship with a mill owner. Gaskell’s critique of industrial capitalism did not go uncritiqued: one response suggested that, as a woman, Gaskell could not “understand industrial problems,” would “know too little about the cotton industry” and should not therefore “add to the confusion by writing about it.”
Born in 1810 to a Unitarian minister, Gaskell first published her own work in 1847, under the amazing pseudonym “Cotton Mather Mills.” Besides North and South, she’s probably most well-known for her 1857 biography of Charlotte Brontë. Most of Gaskell’s other works focused on class struggle, economic inequality, and Victorian or small-town morality. Mary Barton (1848)is the tale of a woman who watches her widowed father devolve into a bitter class hatred that ends with his committing murder. Ruth (1853) was a condemnation of ostracizing “fallen” women, controversial enough to be burned by churches and banned from libraries. Cranford is a series of vignettes satirizing close-minded small-town morals.
Gaskell commonly used the pen name “Mrs. Gaskell,” but it’s not clear exactly why. Possibly it was to set herself apart from other women writers, generally thought to be spinsters (Gaskell’s husband, a minister and teacher, was pretty cool: he was Elizabeth’s literary agent). It might also be that she abhorred revealing any personal information to the public, once telling an interviewer “I must send you on the answer I have already sent to many others; namely an entire refusal to sanction what is to me so objectionable and indelicate a practice, by furnishing a single fact with regard to myself. I do not see why the public have any more to do with me than buy or reject the ware I supply to them.”
When she died in 1865, she was called “the most powerful and finished female novelist of an epoch singularly rich in female novelists.” Her family, in deference to wishes for privacy, never released her notes or letters. If anyone wants to book club North and South, let me know. More Gaskell info here and here.
Side note: Most of Gaskell’s work was published by Dickens in his literary magazine. He was enamored of her work and referred to her as “my dear Scheherezade.”
Side note 2: Charlotte Brontë, while visiting Gaskell, once became so anxious about meeting some other guests that she hid behind the curtains waiting for them to leave.
Side note 3: North and South includes the following absolutely hilarious exchange:
“Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!”
“Not good enough! Don’t mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.”
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3. Chevy Chase the person, was born Cornelius Crane Chase in 1943. Best known for pratfalling as Gerald Ford on SNL, saying “nanananana” while golfing, and experiencing an interminable decline into terminally unfunny comedies while simultaneously being such a grade-A asshole that they couldn’t even find people to come to his roast and insult him. Also, on a personal level, there is no sin greater than his torpedoing a Kevin Smith written / Jason Lee starring Fletch reboot, which would have been life-altering to 1999 me. Besides all that, Chase is a fourteenth generation New Yorker, and you know what assholes the congenitally rich are. So let’s dig back to his great-great-grandfather, Richard T. Crane, founder of Crane & Co. plumbing and brass fittings. And more importantly: his rich-dude secret island hunting lodge, the Jekyll Island Club.
Jekyll Island covers about nine square miles, just off the Georgia coast. Originally populated by Creek peoples, Spain showed up in the 16th century and colonized it. Then France. Then Spain. Then France again, then England in 1733. That’s when it got the name Jekyll Island, for an English benefactor Sir Joseph Jekyll. A well-to-do barrister nicknamed “Master of Rolls” (not sure what kind of rolls), Jekyll’s descendant was friends with RL Stevenson, which is apparently where the the eponymous Dr. Jekyll comes from. Jekyll died in 1738 from “a mortification of the bowels.” It’s tragic, my uncle went the same way.
The island was mostly abandoned by the 1840s, and in 1886 some rich folks had the idea to buy up the land and build a resort, which became the Jekyll Island Club: “The world of industry and commerce, of railroads and factories, of trusts, mergers, and monopolies, is something wholly apart from this island paradise.” Escape from the stresses of modern tycoonery, escape from the befouled miasma of your urban estates, escape from the mental burden of currency manipulation, antitrust violations, and hiring the Pinkertons to brutalize striking workers! Rejuvenate your blood, quiet your neuralgia, soothe your tubercular alveoli in the salt air—plus on-site taxidermy!
The club lasted from 1886 until 1947, and its member roster reads like a who’s who of Gilded Age plutocrats: Goulds, Vanderbilts, Morgans, Pulitzers, Rockerfellers, Marshall Field, a statistically improbable number of people named Cornelius—there’s even a Higinbotham on the list, fer crissakes. It was a place for the immensely wealthy to have their monocles resurfaced, loudly harrumph, hunt
people foxes, place the first transcontinental telephone call in history, ride around in open-top four-wheeled electric carts called Red Bugs, and hold a secret meeting to iron out the basis of the Federal Reserve.
Let me back up. The Federal Reserve story starts with the Panic of 1907 (not to be confused with the panic of 1857, or 1873, or 1893, or 1896, or 1910), in which bank runs, a money supply crunch, and investor panic nearly torpedoed the US economy. The list of causes for this is nearly endless: the bank of London had raised interest rates, the San Francisco earthquake forced scads of money away from New York and to the west coast, the money supply in New York seasonally fluctuated because it was based in part on agriculture. Oh, and also the owner of United Copper tried to corner the market, failed hard, bankrupted himself and his bank, and destabilized the Knickerbocker trust, leading to bank runs and a stock market crash.
JP Morgan and a bunch of other immensely wealthy people essentially got together and decided which struggling banks/trusts they wanted to bail out. The forgiving reading of this is that Morgan and the fatcats bailed out the US economy (which presumes that they had nothing to do with the economic collapse in the first place). Upton Sinclair on the other hand wrote a semi-fictionalized novel accusing Morgan of, more or less, engineering the panic to increase his own power and holdings. Which is more accurate? I am not an economist, but I have a pretty good guess.
In the wake of the panic Senator Nelson Aldrich, a Jekyll Island Club member, was sent on a fact-finding trip to Europe. He was part of a committee investigating “how to maybe not have the economy self-destruct on semi-regular basis.” Europe, unlike the US, had central banks—which could have bailed out the failing banks on their own, as well as, you know, insured deposits to prevent bank runs in the first place.
Aldrich saw something he liked, and in 1910 invited a group of academics and financiers to Jekyll Island to discuss the formation of a central bank. It was a top-secret meeting. The cover story was a duck-hunting trip; the attendees traveled separately and addressed each other by first names only. Aldrich even had to gladhand a snooping reporter to throw him off the scent of a story. They met for 10 days at the club, crafting a bill to create a central banking system. Then they went duck-hunting. Unfortunately the bill was not adopted, but the bones of it were in the 1913 bill creating the Federal Reserve.
The club largely disbanded by the onset of World War II, and in 1947 the state of Georgia bought the club and island. It’s now a vacation destination. You can rent a swank room there and play golf. Read more about Jekyll Island here.